The Wrong Reform
October 26, 2003
By Steven Malanga
MAYOR Bloomberg is touting nonpartisan elections as a way to weaken party bosses. But he's decades late: Today, it's powerful public-employee unions and community nonprofit groups living off government money who control the political agenda.
And Question 3 on the November ballot - which would replace New York's party primary elections with nonpartisan primaries, whose top two winners then face off in the general election - is most likely to empower the "new bosses."
Though machines like Tammany Hall controlled the city's politics for years, by the mid '60s, political scientist Theodore Lowi observed that the public-employee bureaucracy in New York was emerging as "the new machine," with an agenda to protect government jobs. Today, as a result, the city government employs about 100,000 more workers than it did in the mid 1960s - a 30 percent jump, while the city's population has remained essentially unchanged.
The '60s also saw the rise of government-funded, community-based social-services organizations - groups that build subsidized housing, run day-care centers, operate health clinics, etc. City social-services organizations grew from a few hundred, employing fewer than 50,000 people in the mid '60s, to more than 4,000 today, employing 185,000 people.
Working both within the Democratic Party and outside it, unions and social-service activists have created a coalition of public-sector interests - of tax eaters - that has arrayed itself against the interests of taxpaying individuals and businesses in the city. Regardless of the public interest, their interest is always more: more city workers with more pay, more social services, more pensions, more benefits - and more job-killing taxes.
Consider how these forces took advantage of the city's most recent election-law change: term limits. The limits were meant to open up the political process to outsiders (as Mayor Bloomberg says nonpartisan elections will do). But when the law went into effect in 2001, public-sector insiders and activists swarmed into the Democratic primary races. In the end, more than six in 10 of the newly elected city councilmembers had backgrounds in government or in publicly funded social services.
Moreover, in several crucial districts these new councilmen had trounced opponents backed by the Democratic Party organization - belying the Bloomberg notion that a cabal of bosses runs the city.
In fact, if there is a significant overarching force behind the city's public-sector politics today, it is the Working Families Party. Not that WFP, with fewer than 7,000 registered voters, is at all a political party in the conventional sense. Rather, it is a union instrument of electoral politics, mobilizing the membership of its affiliated public-sector unions (and union-boosting activist groups like ACORN) to support its preferred candidates.
With enormous success. In 2001, for instance, 19 candidates endorsed for various municipal offices by the WFP won their Democratic primary elections - with several of the victories coming at the expense of candidates backed by the Democratic Party's official county organizations - and they then went on to win the general election. In the City Council, where 15 WFP-backed candidates won, those victories gave the WFP the kind of voting bloc that no other minor party has ever had.
The WFP has used that new voting power to introduce and pass a host of significant legislation in the new council, some of it over the mayor's veto, including an expansion of the city's living-wage laws and the toughest predatory lending bill in the country.
More and more Democratic candidates are now recognizing the WFP's power. Up to 30 Democratic City Council incumbents have sought and received the WFP's endorsement for the 2003 elections. That's certain to give the WFP a majority on the City Council. Expect it to push for higher taxes (especially on Wall Street and rich New Yorkers) and an expansion of the city's union-strengthening living-wage law to cover more workers - plus a greater burdening of city businesses with still more regulations and requirements.
Nonpartisan elections would do nothing to mitigate the WFP's power - and may well increase its political influence.
How? A switch to nonpartisan voting, by eliminating party primaries, would further weaken Democratic county bosses' ability to select candidates and sway elections, just as Mayor Bloomberg intends. When that happens, as the experience of nonpartisan voting in other cities demonstrates, other well-established groups will fill the void.
"In New York City, groups like unions, politically active churches and community organizations would dominate in a nonpartisan environment," says Ted Arrington, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a longtime observer of nonpartisan voting.
These groups, after all, have all the key infrastructure: a strong organization, a host of workers to campaign and get out the vote and the ability to raise money - plus a powerful motive of self-interest. The WFP's chief, Daniel Cantor, isn't worried about the impact of nonpartisan elections. "We'd still have our grass-roots support to use," he remarks.
The real losers in nonpartisan elections will be those few candidates who try to represent taxpayers instead of tax eaters. Today, a Republican is assured of a place on the general election ballot. And in the last three mayoral elections, those Republicans have been avowed champions of the taxpayers (though Bloomberg later reneged). In the proposed new system, a taxpayers' candidate will almost never make it to the final balloting.
In fact, the Charter Revision Commission's own detailed analysis essentially concludes that, under nonpartisan voting, the 2001 general election would have been almost entirely free of GOP candidates - including candidate Bloomberg.
Steven Malanga is a contributing editor to City Journal. Excerpted from the magazine's forthcoming Autumn issue.
©2003 New York Post
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